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June 12, 2009
Artifact raid in the Four Corners...

After federal raids last week on the somewhat casual, small-town traffic in illicit Southwest artifacts, one prominent pothunter is dead and another couple dozen are under indictment. A culture of diggers who collect and sell human history below the radar is now sharply exposed, and what it reveals challenges the boundaries of right and wrong.

One hundred-fifty federal agents descended on the Four Corners region Monday, unsealing a two-year undercover investigation. A wired informant, who had been involved with the local trade in pre-Columbian artifacts for at least a decade, purchased more than $300,000 in illicit antiquities. Most were bought in the high desert town of Blanding, Utah. You might have an imaginary picture of the pothunters and collectors who live there, a crew of dirty, well-armed black market privateers roving the desert (in the case of many Western pothunters, you'd be right). But the scenario becomes more complicated when you look more closely at who is actually named. Many come from prominent local families, surnames going back over a hundred years in the area. One is a 78-year-old member of the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame, a friendly face greeting you at the Blanding Visitor Center. Half of those indicted are in their 60s and 70s, people who grew up pothunting when it was not even thought of as illegal, much less unethical.

It is somewhat like busting a bunch of good old boys with a backwoods still, only their particular crime is much more long-lasting. Illegal digging in the Four Corners has decimated one of the richest archaeological regions in the country, thousands of years of human history prized from the land and dispersed into the opacity of private collections. It is a form of archaeological genocide, erasing the record of a people from a place. Yet, for many in the area, it is like collecting seashells. Sunday picnics used to include shovels. An old-timer once told me there were so many pots they were like pumpkins on the ground, and few saw anything wrong with digging and collecting. The pastime was hardly frowned upon until the 1980s, when a similar federal raid blew open this same town of Blanding.

It would be easy to pull out the soap box and start throwing sharp language about  the sanctity of the archaeological record, which seems to be how we operate as a whole, but so many situations of the day seem to require a much more delicate and insightful touch. Especially now. I was interviewed on All Things Considered the other day about this raid, and by the necessity of time on the radio, there is only so much that makes it through to the other side. I understand how we become so polarized. We hardly have the time to consider what is really happening.

One of those targeted in this most recent sting was Dr. James Redd, a long-time family doctor and one of the most prominent citizens in town of Blanding. Dr. Redd and his wife, both targeted in the raids, faced similar charges in the 90s when they were caught digging on state land. After a lengthy legal battle full of loopholes, the Redds were acquitted. This time Dr. Redd has been charged with one felony count of theft of Indian tribal property as a co-defendant with his wife, who faces two counts.

Dr. Redd was found dead on his property last Tuesday, the day after his home was searched. It appears that he committed suicide. The following morning, community members gathered at the foot of the Redds' driveway, some weeping, some deeply angered, saying that agents had gone too far in a town where pothunting was once a respectable part of life.

The sting extended beyond Blanding to nearby Colorado and New Mexico. Forrest Fenn, a wealthy collector in Santa Fe, was also hit, although he was not named in the Four Corners indictment. Agents entered Fenn's home on Monday and confiscated artifacts, records, and his computers. Only weeks before, I had visited Fenn and we had spent a day going through his litany of artifacts, most of which he  declared legal, either acquired from private land (legal in this country) or from a chain of hands predating antiquities laws. With infectious enthusiasm, he told me that he is in love with artifacts, that he can feel time in them. He said that everyone has a right to make direct and daily contact with the past, not just scientists and curators. When I countered that scientists and curators are working for a much larger body of knowledge, Fenn replied, "They already have so much they don't know what to do with it. Why do they have to have everything?"

Most privately collected artifacts come with very little context or data, details of their past effectively erased. Knowing this, I was not convinced by Fenn (although his collection is meticulously provenanced, moreso than any other private collection I have seen), but I certainly understood his sentiment. He wanted an intimate relationship with these objects, and not one constrained by institutional decree.

Many scholars and archaeologists rabidly avoid contact with the likes of Fenn or any other character likely to be caught up in an indictment. But like it or not, these people are part of what seems to be a basic human need, an artifact culture yearning for a palpable connection to the past.

Kathryn Walker Tubb, a cultural heritage scholar, recently wrote, "Ultimately the hope, currently so forlorn, must be that some form of reconciliation can be discovered before the archaeological resource is exploited to the point of extinction."

Was last week's raid part of that reconciliation? No. It was perhaps a necessary corruption of human relationships in order to push pothunting farther from the realm of what is acceptable. But it deepens a rift so terrible that one of those involved ended his life. 

When I heard Fenn's home had been raided, I contacted him with my condolences, an act that felt slightly uncomfortable considering that I have long been an avid defender of artifacts remaining in situ and not on collectors' shelves. But contacting him was the right thing to do. What kind of person would I be if I distanced myself from a friend in distress? That, I feel, is part of the reconciliation.


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